Time for China and US to focus on common goals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 12:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 1:18am

China and the US are bound to have differences. But as President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang said during meetings with visiting Secretary of State John Kerry at the weekend, talking over problems will lead to increased co-operation and trust.

A long shadow is instead likely to be cast over bilateral ties after American reports revealed officials are mulling sending warships and planes near China's artificial islands and reclaimed land in the South China Sea. There are bigger issues, though; the focus should be on common goals.

Among them is the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes. Kerry said in Seoul yesterday that Washington was working with Beijing to strengthen sanctions. Chinese leaders and the US foreign secretary also made clear during their talks that they did not want their bilateral process derailed by the South China Sea issue, especially with Xi visiting the US later this year. China has repeatedly said it will not back down over its sovereignty and disputes with neighbours can only be settled through dialogue. Yet the reports last week said US officials were considering sending vessels to within 12 nautical miles of China's islands to assert a right to freedom of navigation in waters Washington contends are international.

The Pentagon's annual report to Congress on China's military earlier this month cast the nation as a threat to regional and international peace and stability. It questioned the transparency of the defence, cyber and space programmes. For the first time, a section was devoted to dredging and island-building in the South China Sea which it said had been dramatically stepped up. China's government is not the only one among the six with territorial claims doing such work.

Most are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has agreed with Beijing to resolve disputes peacefully through friendly consultations and negotiations. A point has been made to shun threats and force - there is a recognition that such action can only lead to escalation and the possibility of a military conflict. The US surely understands this and is in a position to help reach agreements.

China's growing confidence means it will be increasingly assertive, especially where sovereignty is concerned. It is understandable that the US and other countries will have concerns about issues like free navigation. The key is to manage those worries through diplomacy and dialogue. Sending warships risks matters spinning out of control.